Science Sunday 08-06-17

Clingy Drones

Vice News’ Motherboard reports that a new type of drone has successfully been designed by researchers at the Createk Design Lab at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec that can semi-autonomously alight on, and cling to, vertical surfaces, both hard and soft.

Besides obvious spy applications which were not intentionally part of the design process, the researchers suggest that the drone can be used to survey areas damaged by earthquakes, or inspect tall structures that are difficult to get to.



Recently, a team of eleven geologists strongly recommended that the sunken land mass between Australia and New Zealand, called Zeelandia, be declared a full (as opposed to mini) continent.

Zealandia was completely submerged until about 23 million years ago, when New Zealand, the French territory of New Caledonia, and assorted islands began popping out of the sea.

If the gelogists recommendation flies, we will have eight continents, instead of the seven we learned in grammar school.


Matter Matter Everywhere

Science Daily reports that scientists may have finally determined the reason why matter dominates our Universe, and why we are actually here.

In physics there is a kind of symmetry called CP (shorthand for charge parity), and it has been thought for some time that this symmetry might be violated for a certain subatomic process called neutrino oscillation.

Neutrinos come in three varieties (or flavors) depending on what lightly massive particle the neutrino is paired with.  There is a neutrino for electrons, one for muons, and one for tauons, and as odd as it sounds, as these neutrinos fly through space, they repeatedly change (or oscillate) from one neutrino kind to another.

Maintaining CP symmetry would require that these neutrino oscillations be exactly mirrored by their antiparticle cousins (for example an electron antineutrino), but recent work in Japan strongly suggests that this is not the case.

The above video is a nice introduction to neutrinos and how we detect their existence.

Stay tuned: some folks might soon be winning a Nobel prize in physics for this work.


 Job Opening

This week featured a bizarre and somewhat amusing story about a job opening at NASA for “planetary protection officer”, with annual pay of about $187K.  A nine year old boy was an early applicant for the job.

The job is not about protecting Earth from an invasion of ruthless space aliens, but is instead all about keeping the Earth, and solar system places NASA space probes visit, biologically separated.  What NASA doesn’t want under any circumstances is to bring Earth bacteria (and other living stuff) to (say) Mars, or vice versa.

This way Earth would not inadvertently be biologically injured by life from outside Earth, or vice versa.  Such life might be so different that Earth life might be literally defenseless.

You have until August 14th to apply for the position.


Mars Or Bust

Elon Musk of Space X is determined to get to Mars, and soon, and like his work with electric cars, he cannot be faulted for lack of vision.

The video above shows an ingenious system for sending a proto-colony of 100 brave souls to the red planet in a time frame of about 10 years.

Powered by 42 newly designed Raptor engines, our pioneers will have to wait in orbit a while before taking off for Mars, as the original booster rockets needs to come back a few times to refuel the mother ship for the long (roughly three month) journey ahead.

As a first step, Space X expects to send a Dragon cargo ship to Mars sometime in 2018, so stay tuned.

But don’t worry, Dave Chapelle is on the job:


Science Sunday 07-30-17

Tesla Model 3

Well, it’s finally “almost” here, the Tesla Model 3 all electric sedan and sportscar, that promises to be affordable to the masses, and be practical to use.

Over a half million blokes have put down a deposit of $1,000 to purchase what has to be the iPhone of cars.  Although 30 cars have been produced thus far, they were released only to Tesla employees to try out and report bugs.

Although Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla (and Space X) asserts that you will be able to buy one of these pups for “only” 35 grand, a base model is more likely to run you $42,000.

The base model will have a reported range of 220 miles per charge, but for extra money, you can buy a battery upgrade and enjoy an extended range of 310 miles.

The vehicle has no dedicated instrumentation, instead relying exclusively on a tri-partitioned touch screen that shows gauge information, map information, and apps controls.  Even the glove box opens via a button on the touch screen.

The base model and the more expensive souped up models are quite peppy, doing 0 to 60 mph in under 6 seconds.

Musk is “betting the farm” on economies of scale, in particular building the world’s largest factory for batteries (or anything else) in Nevada.

While the first production models will have a single rear wheel drive motor, later versions of the Model 3 will sport all wheel drive.

For a European perspective on this blockbuster announcement, watch this video:


Plastic bottles – The Inquiry

Last week, I wrote about the environmental dangers of plastics, especially one-time-use plastic bottles.  So it was refreshing to hear in detail about that same subject on the (soon to be one of my favorite) podcasts from the BBC called The Inquiry.

The July 23rd episode addresses the question of whether it is time to ban the plastic bottle.  As is the case with all Inquiry podcasts, four experts hold forth of the subject being investigated, and this episode did not disappoint me.

I learned that currently every second of every day, 20 thousand one-time-use plastic water bottles are sold world-wide.  That works out to one million non-biodegradable bottles sold per minute.

The first expert, a Captain Charles Moore, credited with discovering the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the late 1990s, said that the amount of plastic waste floating in gyres in the oceans of the world has increased 60 fold since his initial discovery.  He estimates that if humanity does nothing to curtail plastic waste, then by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans.

Other experts on the podcast talk about government banning of plastic bottles, the need to improve recycling of plastics, the need to create biodegradable plastics, and the need to give users a monetary incentive to recycle disposable plastics, or to not use them in the first place.

The podcast goes on to report that in Europe, consumers of shell fish ingest an average of 11,000 very small pieces of plastic per fish.  The plastic used in bottled water, PETE, is now under investigation as a source of endocrine disruptors, chemicals that can affect human fertility.


Sperm Down For the Count

A recent study in the journal Human Reproduction Update reports that human sperm count has declined by about 60% in the last 40 years in North America, Australia and New Zealand.  Factoring in Europe, the decline is about 50%.

The lead author, Dr. Hagai Levine of Hebrew University, gives no opinion on why this precipitous decline has occurred, but some factors mentioned in news reports are obesity and estrogenic compounds in plastics.  Estrogenics are the endocrine inhibitors mentioned in the plastics post above.

A newsletter I follow, the People’s Pharmacy, also mentioned this study, and opined that it may in part be due to the plastic compound BPA (Bisphenol-A).  The Mayo Clinic has some advice on how to reduce exposure to BPA.


Fracking and Earthquakes, Surely You Jest!

Ok Fracking Earthquake Animation

Click on the picture above to watch how fracking induced earthquakes in Senator Inhofe’s state have literally exploded over the last twelve or so years.

Courtesy of USGS, at least until Trump figures out how to defund it.



Eighth Wonder of the World

Landing Falcon 9The ancient world had seven wonders, although only one survives, the Great Pyramid of Giza.  But today we need to add a new wonder of the world, the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, made by Elon Musk’s SpaceX Corporation, that successfully left Earth and then relanded without damage.

To borrow a term from gymnastics, it stuck its landing perfectly.  To see the video feed of the landing, click on the image above.

The first stage reached a height of approximately 100 km (60 miles) before executing a complicated maneuver that allowed it to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere in an upright position, and land back at Cape Canveral.

For more of the physics of the problem of landing a rocket stage, see here.

For another tantalizing view of the stage 1 reentry, from a helicopter filming nearby, click here.